The Copycat Effect: Is the Media to Blame?

‘Copycatting’ is the act of replicating something which was previously successful. In relation to school shootings, this would involve attempting to pull off a similar attack to a highly-publicised one. More problematically, the incidents with the higher death tolls tend to get more attention. This could be said to set a ‘bar’ by which future school shootings are measured, with copycatters aiming to go a step further with their attack. What will be debated in this blog post is whether the news media can be held accountable, given its saturated coverage can make an event infamous in the first place.

 

The former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, once said that “Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism.” As an event intended to generate infamy and publicity, this statement could also be applied to school shooting attacks. It could be argued that if these attacks were not covered in the news media, there would be no ‘script’ for future perpetrators to follow. The prominence given to the story is also pertinent, with school shootings generally gaining ‘front page’ status and saturated broadcast coverage. In the case of the Columbine school shooting, the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper declined to put the story on the front page in case it encouraged others. Likewise, the National Enquirer showed a colour photograph of the two shooters lying in a pool of blood in order to ‘de-glamourise’ their actions. Probably the most notable example of this link is the Virginia Tech school shooting, where the perpetrator sent a copy of his manifesto to broadcast news station NBC prior to the attack. This then led to the dilemma of whether to show this footage; in the end, NBC decided to broadcast it, arguing it was in the public’s interest to see it.

 

It is notable that threats for further school shooting attacks occur shortly after an incident and sometimes on the anniversaries of when they took place. Following the shooting at Columbine High School, bomb threats made at schools peaked over 5000. There were also numerous examples of individual incidents across the country. A 17 year old boy wore a trench coat and walked round his school pretending he had a gun in Houma, Louisiana. In Oxon Hill High School, Virginia, a 15 year old boy threatened to blow up the school if he continued to receive poor grades in algebra. These are just a couple of examples of the types of copycat hoaxes that transpired.

 

Overall, it is debatable to what extent the news media can be held responsible. On the one hand, if the media failed to report the story and to attach a degree of significance to it, they would fail in their duty as ‘public watchdogs.’ There is a danger, however, in portraying school shootings — particularly those with high death tolls — as a way to gain infamy. The advent of social media has made this particularly dangerous, with there being even greater potential for news of school shootings to spread widely and quickly. As an explanation for school shootings on its own, the news media and copycat correlation seems particularly rudimentary. A better way to look at it is that the media provides a platform for school shooters and threateners to promote a particular presentation of themselves, the extent of which is dependent on the amount of coverage generated. More will be said on the way school shooters ‘use’ the media in blog posts later in the year.

 

[This blog post was put together using readings about the Columbine and Virginia Tech school shootings. The next post will look at copycat threats in more detail and what action can be taken against them.]

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